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Businesses have bought in to the open office plan in a big way. It’s a definite money-saver, requiring 50%-75% fewer square feet per employee than enclosed offices or cubicles. And compared to “cubicle farms,” an open office is a visually welcoming environment that encourages communication and collaboration. Approximately 70% of American offices were open plan in 2017, according to The Chicago Tribune. The GSA, too, is strongly pitching open offices to federal agencies.

However, the open office plan is not one-size-fits-all, and a significant number of organizations are finding that open offices are creating more problems than they are solving. The Tribune report enumerates the problems created by open offices: distracting noise levels, reduced work-life balance, lack of privacy for everything from confidential emails to moments of personal stress. Some workers at prominent corporations, particularly highly-focused introverts, have threatened to quit when their workplace was redesigned in an open style.

Nevertheless, the positive aspects of the open office still make it very appealing to many organizations. In-demand younger professionals show a definite preference for open offices, and the cross-pollination between teams is an undeniable benefit, in addition to build-out and space utilization savings. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, organizational researchers Brandi Pearce and Pamela Hinds point to “place identity” as an essential component of a well-functioning open office plan. Place identity is similar to the notion of taking ownership of one’s work; the place where you work aligns with your perception that your work is meaningful and valuable, and a reflection of your best self.

To achieve place identity, Pearce and Hinds emphasize the need for leaders to be enthusiastic about the open office design, and to share the plan and the enthusiasm with their teams before any changes are made. Equally important: Employees are encouraged to adapt the space to their needs. Pearce and Hinds found that workers routinely rearranged their desks as their need for collaboration or privacy changed.

Rearranging work spaces on an ad hoc basis calls for highly adaptive furnishings. Designers are choosing furnishings with wheels for easy mobility, and hinged panels and tool-free set-up for quick reconfigurations. Manufacturer Swiftspace has led the way with its mobile reconfigurable workstations that morph from semi-private desks to collaborative conference tables and work benches. This kind of easy adaptivity and control over personal space is the essence of place identity.

Like so many things, the open office plan ceases to function well if taken to an extreme. No one wants to go back to cube farms, however. To find the right balance between enclosed spaces and open offices, enlist the expertise of a workspace strategy consultant and put place identity at the center of your office design decisions.


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